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Let's Play Terraforming Mars

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The Hunter's Moon waxed round in the night sky, and put to flight all the lesser stars. But low in the South one star shone red. Every night, as the Moon waned again, it shone brighter and brighter. Frodo could see it from his window, deep in the heavens, burning like a watchful eye that glared above the trees on the brink of the valley. - J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book II, chapter 3 We had been hearing a lot of hype about Terraforming Mars , a board game by a Swedish guy where you, well, terraform Mars. Seeing as how I enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy and I live in a household of avid Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri players, this was a no-brainer purchase for us. Luckily - spoilers - it's also really, really good. ** To start with the best bit: it fits on our kitchen table! We own several lovely board games like Star Wars: Rebellion and Star Trek: Frontiers , not to mention War of the Ring , which we almost never get to play as they simply will not fit in our apartment. The Game of Thrones board game has an expansion that comes with an additional board, and I'd love to get it, but I have literally no idea where we could possibly play it. So I'm delighted that we managed to fit a four-player game of Terraforming Mars on our table! The centerpiece is obviously the board, which is a pretty map of Mars that gives off strong SMAC vibes. Each player has their own player board and player-colored plastic cubes, and there are very nice copper, silver and gold-colored cubes to denote resources. The only real criticism I have for the physical game is that the cubes are very light, so if you so much as nudge your player board (or, heaven forbid, the table), you'd better remember how much steel you were producing, because that little cube is gone. I can't help but think of the Fallout board game 's robust player boards and contemplate something similar here. The objective of the game is to terraform Mars: in practical terms, make the surface of Mars habitable for humans. This is tracked through three global parameters: temperature, oxygen and ocean. Everybody co-operates to raise these to their maximum levels, earning Terraforming Rating points for their contributions, and when all three parameters max out, the player with the highest TR wins. I already mentioned the player board: it keeps track of how much money and other resources each player is producing per turn. These resources are used to either directly terraform, especially in the case of heat and plants, or pay for projects that contribute to either your production or terraforming. Each player plays as a corporation involved in colonizing Mars; for first games, the recommendation is to take a beginner corporation, which we did, but later you get to pick from different corporations that affect how your game unfolds. Each player also gets a starting hand of project cards , and each turn ("generation") there's an opportunity to buy more. Project cards cost money to buy and play, but some (or all!) of the playing cost can be offset with resources. Even with the beginning corporations, the project cards you draw at the beginning of the game will tend to give you a starting direction, so to speak. For instance, one of us got Soletta into play on their first turn, which massively boosted their heat production, making it clear that they were going to be contributing significantly to raising the temperature. On the other hand, I started with Regolith Eaters, which drove me toward a science specialization and meant that I was active in raising oxygen levels. This specialization is further driven by the milestones, which you can unlock when you reach a prerequisite, and awards that you can fund which will award victory points to whoever fulfills their conditions - not necessarily the person who funded them! When you play project cards, they either go into a personal discard pile or stay on the table. Below you can see my player board and cards several generations in: I'm growing oxygen-producing microbes, recharging Mars's magnetic field with the Equatorial Magnetizer, and a bunch of other stuff as well. On the map, you can see several ocean, greenery and city tiles already deployed. Several of the project cards have upper or lower thresholds for when they can be played, which meant that we progressed from a cold, dry planet with microbes and small sheltered colonies to one with several oceans, fish and livestock and lots of greenery. I ended up playing a lot of science projects and just projects in general: Many of these projects also came with victory points, and I was a bit disappointed to not be able to afford to fund the Scientist award, as I easily had the most science tags. Here's what the board looked like after final scoring: And here's the final score! I won, which doesn't happen all that often, but most importantly, final scoring was a nail-biter, with all four of us finishing within just a couple of points of each other. I can freely admit that when the last generation ended, I had no idea who was going to win. ** We also got to try a couple of three-player games, where me and my brother-in-law played proper corporations, with a third player helming a beginner corporation. In our first game, I was the Tharsis Republic, facing Ecoline. I was lucky with the cards, drawing Capitol and Noctis City to go with the Tharsis city-based strategy, and ended up winning with 88 VP and a comfortable margin. The non-beginner corporations only make the game better: you pick from two options at the beginning, so there's some choice, and although they give you a boost in a certain direction, they don't really tie you down to a particular path. Also, having to pick which starting project cards you buy adds an excellent new layer of decision-making. Having beginner players get to keep all their starting cards is a stroke of genius, because it means they can work out what they all do while the non-beginners are puzzling out which cards to buy. On our next three-player attempt, I played as Interplanetary Cinematics; we were going to colonize Mars and make reality television out of it, and for some reason, we start with all the steel ever. This time I was less lucky with the cards - all that steel's no good if you can't draw any building tags - but I'll freely admit I also made some poor card-buying decisions, and in the end, I lost to Credicor. Even in a losing effort, this is just a tremendously enjoyable game to play. You get to plan ahead and contribute to a joint effort, so even if you're not winning, you're still engaged in doing something meaningful and fun. I don't know if it's all the Alpha Centauri , but I find Terraforming Mars incredibly immersive, and just great fun throughout. ** After beginner corporations and the standard game, the proper way to play is Corporate Era. This adds the rest of the project and corporation cards in the base game, and everyone starts with zero production in all the various resources. This makes for a slightly longer game - our first attempt clocked in at just a bit under four hours - but it was a very well-spent four hours! Starting with no production makes the impact of your starting corporation that much greater, and the early going is a bit rough. However, Corporate Era only underlines the genius of Terraforming Mars : its pacing is damn near perfect. Whereas a lot of board games have a final phase where it's become somewhat obvious who's going to win, we've never had that happen in Terraforming Mars . Even in Corporate Era, at first terraforming is a bit sluggish, until it starts picking up the pace and all of a sudden you find it's the last turn, and you're scrambling to play what cards you can. In our first Corporate Era game, Teractor's superior financial resources won out by a fair margin. We liked the Corporate Era cards; they add some more opportunities to sabotage your rivals, but never to the extent that any real "PVP" feel would develop. Even though Corporate Era games are a little bit longer, the extra time is fully warranted and the experience remains excellent fun, without the physical and mental exhaustion of larger and more complex board games. ** The game has several expansions, of which we've bought Prelude ; I'm slightly concerned that Colonies and Venus Next won't fit on our table! Prelude adds a couple of new corporation and project cards, which I think are worthwhile, and a special "pre-round"; each player is dealt four Prelude cards with their starting corporation and project cards, and two of these are played before the first proper turn starts. They do various things to speed up the early game, like give you a pile of money or let you play a card. We tried it, and it was excellent. The prelude cards led to a lot of careful thinking at the start of the game, but they seem to be excellently balanced, because the game lasted pretty much exactly as long as it did without them! My prelude cards were Research Network, which let me draw three cards and increased my money production, and Orbital Construction Yard, which had me producing titanium from the beginning. Despite my best efforts, Teractor won in a game where none of us really knew who was ahead until final scoring. Also look how green our Mars was! I don't think we'd ever placed that many greenery tiles before. Maybe the best way to sum up the Terraforming Mars experience I've chronicled here is that over four fairly competitive and very fun games with the same four players, each of us won once. That's balance for you! ** To sum up, this is a truly excellent board game. When we first tried it, only one of us had ever played before, but we had no trouble diving in, got through it in something like 3-4 hours, and definitely enjoyed ourselves. With proper corporations, the game barely took any longer at all, but was even more fun. I think Terraforming Mars is one of the best board games I've ever played, and I highly recommend it.

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